It’s just over two years since the photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed covering the uprising in Libya, and this anniversary seems like as good a time as any to reread and review two of his books, starting with this one. Long Story Bit by Bit was my first encounter with Hetherington’s work, and undoubtedly the one that has made the deepest impact. At a time when I still believed I wanted to be a traditional photojournalist this quickly became my model for this done well in book form. That’s not to say Hetherington was a conventional journalist by any means, either in the quality of his images or the techniques he employed to document his subjects.
On the face of things Long Story Bit by Bit is about the second Liberian Civil War, a particularly hellish conflict which raged from 1999–2003. A war where in the words of one correspondent ‘combatants get high on dope and paint their fingernails red before committing some of the world’s most unspeakable atrocities against their enemies’. Hetherington was one of only a handful of journalists reporting the conflict from the lines of the rebel group the ‘Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy’ (LURD), who ultimately overthrew the regime of Charles Taylor. This viewpoint in itself makes Long Story Bit by Bit an interesting body of work.
But, as I discussed with a colleague who was recently in Liberia, the book is far more another record of war in Africa, because when the war ended and many reporters upped and left for the next assignment, Hetherington stayed. He made his home in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, and continued to record a process that was in some ways far more difficult and testing than the conflict; the process of reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation that inevitably had to follow out. This is the subject which in fact forms the bulk of the book, images of reconstructing interspersed non-chronologically with images of conflict.
At the same time Hetherington sets out to reveal more of the history of Liberia, a country that I, like I suspect many Europeans, know painfully little about. Many images explore Liberia’s complex historical relationship with the United States, which used the country as a source of slaves in the early nineteenth century. Hetherington explores themes of Liberian national identity, stemming from the founding of the country in 1847 by repatriated slaves, and the resultant, continuing divisions between native Liberians and Americo-Liberians. He also explores narratives of Liberian success in the mid twentieth century, that saw it become one of the fastest growing African economies and an important prototype for other states emerging from colonisation.
The book design is simple, page after page of square format photographs, captioned and often sub-captioned with additional notes on recent Liberian history. Mixed amongst these are interviews, or rather oral histories, with prominent Liberians, from former rebel fighters to senior government officials, foreign consuls to local activists. All have a different take on the causes, conduct, and consequences of the civil war, which together begin to paint a picture of a country undermined by circumstance, pulled in multiple directions by different groups, and in thrall to a charismatic but violently unstable leader.
I’ve often heard people describe this book as a rough diamond, an example of the work of a photographer on the ascendancy but not quite there yet, while Hetherington’s next book Infidel (reviewed soon) is often suggested as showing his practice at its apex. For me it’s probably the other way around. There are some flaws in Long Story Bit by Bit but they dissolve when viewed against the achievements of the book. Considering the nature of the vastly complicated topic, the expansive period of history covered and the multiple competing voices facing him, Hetherington does a really remarkable job of consolidating this all into such a coherent body of work.